Tim Dieppe comments on the recent removal by police of preacher Hatun Tash at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner.
‘The home of free speech’
Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park has long been a bastion of free speech in the UK. It is reputed to be the most famous location for free speech in the world. A BBC article describes it as “the home of free speech.” The history of the place stretches back to an act of parliament in 1872 which sets aside this part of Hyde Park for public speaking. The list of people who are known to have spoken there is long and includes such notable people as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Billy Graham, Lord Soper, and Tony Benn. Anyone can turn up unannounced and speak on almost any topic they like – though they may well have to cope with heckling.
Speaker’s Corner has long been a favourite location for street preachers. The BBC article notes that “at least half the speakers are preachers,” but also comments that in recent years “at least as many of the preachers are Muslim as Christian.”
I have been there myself for a Sunday afternoon and seen how the place is now dominated by Muslims, but with some brave Christians holding forth. Video footage will show that it is a highly combative environment with accusations, and insults being thrown all over the place, and where strength of voice can be almost as important as strength of argument. Nevertheless, when I went, I was impressed with the high quality of debate between Christians and Muslims that goes on there. You need to be very well-informed to be able to hold your own in the discussions.
One of the very bravest of the Christian preachers at Speakers’ Corner is Hatun Tash. I have seen her in action myself and she is incredibly well informed on Islamic apologetics and an expert in engaging in the cut-and-thrust debate that occurs there. In spite of being a relatively short woman, she commands a strong presence and is not intimidated by crowds of mostly men who heckle her and surround her. Hatun was physically assaulted at Speakers’ Corner in July. In a YouTube discussion with David Wood, she revealed that in August, police warned her that they believe some Muslims intend to kill her and that therefore it is dangerous for her to go to Speakers’ Corner. But Hatun is not intimidated or cowed. She wants Muslims to hear what she has to say. She believes that the Muslims are making threats in order to get the police to stop her from preaching at Speakers’ Corner because she is so effective. She has seen many Muslims convert to Christianity through her remarkable ministry.
Escorted out by police
On Sunday 13 September, Hatun was escorted out of Speakers’ Corner by police for her own safety. You can watch the full video footage here. She was told that if she returned there she would be arrested. This raises many questions about the home of free speech. It appears that the police believe that it is no longer safe for Christians to critique Islam there. The police were prepared to step in and remove Hatun and prevent her from sharing the gospel there. Where next for free speech in this world-famous location?
There is no doubt that Hatun was being provocative. That is her style. To be quite honest, if you are not provocative at Speakers’ Corner, then no-one will bother listening to you. Those who go to Speakers’ Corner go there expecting provocative things to be said and done. That is the nature of the place. Muslims are routinely provocative in their criticism of Christianity at Speakers’ Corner, as is their right.
Famously, with the help of others, Hatun has taken 26 different Arabic Qur’ans to Speakers’ Corner and explained that they are all different. This point is very disturbing to Muslims who have been taught that the Qur’an is eternal and unchangeable and perfectly preserved. The Muslim leaders were so alarmed by this display that you can see them in the video calling other Muslims to come away because they didn’t want them to hear or see this material, against which they had no answer. Textual criticism of the Qur’an is now a rapidly developing field of study and the Islamic world is still struggling to know how to respond to evidence of multiple different Qur’ans. A leading Muslim apologist shocked the Islamic world when he recently admitted that there are real issues, and stated that “the standard narrative has holes in it.”
To remind Muslims of this issue, Hatun was using the visual aid of a large Qur’an with holes drilled through it. Provocative to be sure, but not outside the bounds of free speech – and certainly not in Speakers’ Corner, the home of free speech. Holes in any other book would have been seen as fair game. Hatun has seen at least one Muslim convert to Christianity following a conversation provoked by this visual aid.
Hatun also had copies of the cartoons of Muhammad, printed by Charlie Hebdo, which famously provoked Muslims and resulted in a terrorist attack back in 2015. Millions of people, including 40 world leaders, marched across Paris in displays of solidarity at the time. The trial of the suspected terrorists began in Paris this month. Hatun used the cartoons to show how dangerous Muhammad’s teaching is. Once again, cartoons are clearly within the bounds of free speech.
As sunset approached, a Muslim snatched Hatun’s holey Qur’an from her and ran off with it. Two of her Christian friends were punched trying to recover it. Shortly after this, the police intervened.
The police action effectively enforced sharia law in Speakers’ Corner. They acted to protect Islam from criticism. Ostensibly they were merely acting to protect a brave, but vulnerable woman – but their action also served to silence her. It should have been those making threats who were removed, not Hatun. The result was that a Christian preacher was silenced by police in the home of free speech.
Ever since the violence and threats surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989, there has been a measure of self-censorship in our society when it comes to criticism of Islam. This time, the censorship was enforced. Muslims in Speakers’ Corner are effectively enforcing a ‘heckler’s veto’ – threats of violence to silence arguments they can’t deal with. Muslims there now know that if they get angry enough and start threatening a Christian preacher then the police will step in and remove the preacher. When threats are rewarded with censure of the person being threatened, this can only serve to encourage more threats. This does not bode well for the future of Christian preaching at Speakers’ Corner. When free speech is curtailed at Speakers’ Corner, there is little hope for the rest of the country.
Watch footage from Hatun’s removal from Speakers’ Corner: